Middle East

UNGA wrap: Trump’s Middle East policy takes a kicking

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki speaks with reporters at the New York Grand Hyatt (MEE/James Reinl)

NEW YORK, United States – It was not just US President Donald Trump getting laughed at by the UN General Assembly this week. On Iran, Palestine and other Middle East issues, Washington drifted away from its global allies and partners, veteran diplomats told Middle East Eye.

At one of several events about Irans missile-building and support for foreign militias, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was heckled by a woman audience member who was kicked out after yelling: “Were sick of you killing these Iranians.”

As he exited that meeting at a Manhattan hotel, Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAEs ambassador to Washington, was trailed down the street by another activist calling him a “war criminal” over his countrys US-backed military deployment in Yemen.

But, according to UN analysts, these public embarrassments were overshadowed by a growing international resentment to a Trump administration that is struggling to rally allies and partners behind its policy goals in the Middle East.

“Last year, there was an uncertainty over who Trump was. Was it real? Was it an act? Now, everybody has a year more of understanding this man and very few countries, very few leaders, are buying into the show,” Daniel Kurtzer, a former US diplomat, told Middle East Eye.

“Behind closed doors, they have to face the reality what Trump has said publicly is now the laughing stock of the international community.”

US goals

Washingtons main goal at this years UN General Assembly was to isolate Iran diplomatically and economically and to justify Trumps decision to scrap the 2015 nuclear deal over the objections of co-signatories Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, Iran and the European Union.

In his keynote to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump bashed a “brutal regime” for spreading “mayhem across the Middle East” and is led by clerics who “plunder the nations resources” while its economy freefalls.

He urged “all nations to isolate Irans regime” by joining Washingtons re-imposition of nuclear sanctions on Iran, and to curb its oil exports in November to staunch cash-flows that he claimed fund illicit nuclear and ballistic missile technology.

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Later, the state department tried to rally support against Iran by releasing a 48-page report called “Outlaw Regime: A Chronicle of Irans Destructive Activities,” which probes its alleged support for militant groups, missile programme, illicit financial schemes and other issues.

On Wednesday, Trump presided over UN Security Council talks that were slated to single out Iran. But US diplomats had already faced blowback from other members on the 15-nation body, and reframed the event to cover weapons proliferation more generally.

EU works against US

That was not the only resistance Trump met at the UN headquarters. Within hours of him leaving the UNs marble dais, European Union members announced plans to skirt US sanctions and enable legal trade with Iran.

In what was widely seen as an uncharacteristic rebuke of Washington, French President Emmanuel Macron chided its “survival-of-the-fittest approach” to world affairs. Addressing the Security Council, Macron said Washingtons approach to Iran was inadequate.

“We are all united around this table that Iran must not be able to arm itself with nuclear weapons,” said Macron, sitting just a few feet away from Trump. But, he added, “sanctions and containment” are not sufficient.

Whats important is that today, other than one or two countries, no one is supporting America. Its a historic political isolation that is rare for America

– Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran

Macrons decision to meet privately with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, to discuss keeping the nuclear deal alive, was widely seen as a snub to Trump. The same went for Rouhanis face-time with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, another US ally.

In this climate, Rouhani could turn the tables on Trump under the spotlight of a UN address. He told Trump to “stop bullying” Tehran and painted the US as a rogue nation that was taking a wrecking ball to the rules-based global order.

Later, Rouhani cited International Atomic Energy Agency findings that Iran was sticking to the uranium-enrichment controls set by the 2015 deal, and that it was Washington – not Tehran – that had breached a UN Security Council resolution.

“Whats important is that today, other than one or two countries, no one is supporting America,” Rouhani told reporters at a press conference later in the week. “Its a historic political isolation that is rare for America.”

Behind-the-scenes

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas used similar tactics when addressing the UN on Thursday, against the backdrop of the West Wing pushing a peace process that is widely viewed as favouring Israel over the Palestinians.

This past year, Trump has slashed funding for Palestinian refugees, shuttered the PLO representative office in Washington and upended years of negotiations by recognising Jerusalem as Israels capital.

On Thursday, Abbas urged the US to backpedal, telling the 194-nation hall: “With all of these decisions, this administration has reneged on all previous US commitments, and has undermined the two-state solution.”

There was more action behind the scenes. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki spoke of “open war” with the White House after private talks with envoys from some 40 European, Arab and other governments in defiance of Trumps peace-making efforts.

World powers appeared to have their back, by stumping up cash for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, which was defunded by a Trump administration that sought to put pressure on Abbas.

On Thursday, the agencys commissioner-general Pierre Krähenbühl‏ thanked Kuwait, the EU, Germany, Norway, France, Belgium and Ireland for stumping up $122m, reducing the deficit to $68m and lessening its worst-ever financial crisis.

At important Ministerial mtg in NY $122 M were mobilized in support of @UNRWA & Palestine refugees. I warmly thank #Kuwait, #EU, #Germany, #Norway, #France, #Belgium and #Ireland for their generous announcements. A very signifiant collective mobilization. pic.twitter.com/J0AAoJdQoD

— Pierre Krähenbühl (@PKraehenbuehl) September 28, 2018

Addressing world leaders, Macron swiped at Trumps tactics, saying that “trampling on the legitimate rights” of the Palestinians with “unilateral initiatives” will not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Of course, the US was not wholly without allies. Israels Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered UN members alleged evidence of a secret Iranian nuclear site. Before talks with Trump, he said the presidents decision on Jerusalem had “touched our hearts”.

Saudi Arabias Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir backed up Trumps censure of Iran. US diplomats also negotiated a joint statement with Arab and European allies on war-ravaged Syria that called for a new constitution and “free and fair UN-supervised elections”.

But overall, former US diplomats saw Washingtons global clout wane this week. Jon Alterman, a former US State Department official, told MEE that foreign leaders were working against Trump and trying to “replace the US without confronting it”.

Heather Conley, a former state department official, noted European overtures to Moscow and Beijing to keep the Iran deal afloat, but also saw limitations in whether they could “meaningfully balance against the US and its policies”, she told MEE.

Kurtzer, formerly Washingtons ambassador to Israel and Egypt, said that while Trump had become a joke on the world stage, the annual parley in midtown Manhattan was only important “to a small group of policy makers”.

“Nobody is watching Abbass UN speech, theyre watching the Kavanaugh hearings”, said Kurtzer, referencing a sex scandal that has dominated US media coverage throughout UN week.

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